LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers have taken some of cinema’s highest-profile and most expensive actors and chucked them into looney-tunes roles in a thriller set in and about Washington.
It takes awhile to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of “Burn” because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly.
In their follow-up to last year’s multiple-Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen clearly are in a prankish mood, knocking out a minor piece of silliness with all the trappings of an A-list studio movie. Those who relish this movie might treat it as the second coming of “The Big Lebowski”; those who don’t might wonder at a story in which no character has a level head. Signs look good, though, for a solid North American opening September 12 via Focus Features after the film’s debut as the opening-night screening of the Venice Film Festival.
The linchpin to the shenanigans arrives in a particularly funny scene in which a CIA analyst, played by a caustic John Malkovich, is summarily fired. He retreats to write a tell-all memoir amid bouts of heavy drinking. Under the circumstances, his wife — an anal-retentive Tilda Swinton — schemes to divorce him in favor of her married lover, a federal marshal (George Clooney), under the false assumption that he will leave his author-wife (Elizabeth Marvel).
Meanwhile, seemingly in another universe, a sports gym employee (Frances McDormand) with a forlorn love life obsesses over expensive plastic surgeries, oblivious to the fact that her boss, a moon-eyed Richard Jenkins, is obsessed with her. When a computer disc containing the cashiered CIA analyst’s first draft falls into her hands, she and her pickle-brained colleague (Brad Pitt) scheme to blackmail the author.
Everyone here is suffering from a full-blown midlife crisis. All operate in a morality-free zone. The conviction that the grass is greener anywhere but here is rampant. Curiously, everyone looks over his shoulder, certain that he’s being followed. This is the one and only time the characters are right about something.
The Coens, assuming triple roles of writers, directors and producers, give each person a special eccentricity. Pitt moves his body as if in a marathon aerobics session. Clooney never walks into a new lover’s abode without commenting on the flooring. Jenkins is a push-me-pull-you doll, fatally lured by McDormand’s charms but repelled by her online dating and involvement in blackmail. Malkovich’s character has a lifetime’s supply of cynicism while Swinton’s fails to “read” anyone.
The key thing is that every actor is riffing on his or her screen persona. The guys who pulled off all those casino heists, the stars of many Sundance films — yep, they’re all idiots.